Cargo Bikes | 16 MIN READ

How to choose a cargo bike

How to choose a cargo bike

Perhaps Benny Engelbrecht, Danish Minister for Transport, said it best:

"The bicycle can’t change the world, but it is damn close."

Whether a childhood pastime, a way of promoting fitness and health, or a beloved hobby, bicycles have touched countless lives around the world. In recent years, Americans have been seeing bikes as more than just health or fitness equipment. More people in the US are ditching their motor vehicles and adopting a bike-based lifestyle. With so many bike options, gear, and accessories to choose from, nearly any bike can fulfill the role of a daily vehicle for a good number of people (just strap a backpack to your back to carry your essentials). However, there are some bikes that cater to those who have a more specific need: the ability to carry people, pets, or large loads. If you happen to be one of those people, a cargo bike might be exactly what you’re looking for.

What is a cargo bike?

Especially popular in urban areas because of their versatility and small size, cargo bikes can make it possible to bypass heavy traffic and easier to find safe parking — all while carrying whatever (or whoever) you need for the day! Cargo bikes, sometimes referred to as utility bikes, are enjoyed and appreciated by people from all walks of life and parts of the world. Simply defined, a cargo bike is a bicycle, tricycle, or pedal-powered four-wheeler specifically designed to transport cargo of all sizes, particularly loads that are large or heavy, including multiple passengers.

Cargo bikes are generally unisex and come in one-size-fits-all. With basic tools, the seat and handlebars heights can be adjusted to fit most body types. There are many cargo bike designs on the market, all meeting different needs and requirements. Some bikes have lower carrying capacities of only a couple hundred pounds, while others can carry as many as 800 pounds!

cargo bike with passengersRad Power Bikes RadWagon 4

Cargo bikes are available in both standard and electric-assist form, making it more accessible to those who have longer distances to cover or need an extra power boost. A basic cargo bike can be had for about $1000, while a high end brand can go as high as $6000. Electric cargo bikes are a bit pricier than standard ones and can cost anywhere from $1000 to $8000. Like standard cargo bikes, the cost of an electric one increases as features and accessories are added to the list or if it is a luxury brand.

Why a cargo bike?

Because cargo bikes serve the specific purpose of transporting loads that are generally difficult to carry on a bicycle, they can be found in both professional and personal-use settings. Whether it’s packages that need delivering or groceries that need to be brought home, a cargo bike is an efficient way to get the job done.

Originating in Holland in the late 19th century and before the development of the automobile, cargo bikes were frequently used by tradesmen, such as milkmen and bakers, who needed an easy, efficient way to deliver their goods. By the 1930’s, most companies in Denmark had adopted the cargo bike to solve logistical issues. Fast forward to present day and it’s not unusual to see a food delivery person riding down a busy city street with someone’s meal carefully secured on the bike, or a mail courier delivering this month’s bag of dog food.

The conveniences of riding a bike instead of driving a car are being appreciated for other reasons, too. Some people appreciate that bike-riding is a fun way to get some fresh air and exercise. For others, it’s about no longer wasting time sitting in traffic or looking for a parking space. Because of their carrying capacity, cargo bikes are perfect for grocery runs or traveling to and from work or school. In fact, it’s becoming more and more common to see parents riding with their kids in tow, as many families are making the leap of traveling by car to commuting by bike.

Cargo bikes have even proven to be valuable tools in solving a variety of logistical issues that would otherwise make it impossible to bring aid or relief to others. Bikes are able to overcome the vulnerabilities, such as fuel shortages, broken communication systems, and damaged transportation infrastructure, that motor vehicles cannot. The United Parcel Service uses cargo bikes to make deliveries in areas that aren’t accessible by car. Disaster relief managers around the world count on cargo bikes to overcome terrain that can’t be traveled by motor vehicle so that life-saving food, medical supplies, and other essential goods can be distributed.

riese mueller packsterRiese & Müller Packster 70

How do I know which one?

Not all cargo bicycles are created equally, so your needs, preferences, and limitations should be considered when deciding which cargo bike best fits the bill. Before scrolling through the many cargo bikes online and racking your brain with dozens of questions, first determine why you need a cargo bike to begin with. Begin by answering these two:

  • Am I expecting to replace my car with a bike for specific errands and car trips or am I buying this bike with the intention of replacing a car entirely?
  • Will I have a motor vehicle available for use in severe weather situations?

If you have a car at your disposal, then there’s no need to spend extra money on a collection of all-weather accessories and apparel; in most cases, the basics should be plenty. Knowing whether or not you’ll be cycling in extreme weather is also important because some bikes are better equipped to overcome certain challenges than others. Be sure to keep this need at the forefront of your mind and be attentive to bike specs.

Where

There may be more factors to consider when addressing the “where’s” of your cargo bicycling than you may have initially realized, but riding destinations are just the beginning! Knowing where a large bike can be parked or stored, how it can be transported (if necessary), and the kind of terrain it needs to withstand is equally as important. Below are a few questions you can ask yourself.

  • Will I be commuting to school or work? What are the distances?
  • Will I be doing grocery runs?
  • How will I ensure safe, secure public parking?
  • How will I store it at home?
  • Do I need to get it into a train, bus, etc?
  • How far will you be traveling on your bike?
  • What kind of terrain is expected? (Some examples include smooth paved bike lanes, gravel roads, busy city streets, etc).

Cargo

There are several cargo bike styles available, each with different storage and weight capacities. Think ahead about who and what you’ll be transporting and determine what equipment and accessories are necessary to ensure your cargo and passengers arrive safely.

  • Will I be transporting items that are temperature sensitive?
  • Will I be transporting only cargo, only people, or a combination of both?
  • Do I need to transport kids? If so, how many? And with cargo?
  • Do I need to transport adults? If so, how many? And with cargo? (Also consider the overall weight of each adult being carried, as well as the additional weight of any belongings that may need to be transported, too; some bikes have lower weight carrying capacities than others).

Budget

Knowing what you can afford might be one of the most pivotal determining factors, so be sure to establish your budget early on. Also consider what items will need to be purchased, in addition to the bicycle itself.

  • What is my overall budget?
  • What do I need to purchase in order to carry cargo?
  • What do I need to purchase in order to carry passengers?
  • Are there any basic features that do not come standard on the bike in question?
  • What riding apparel (safety or otherwise) do I need to purchase to ensure that I’m comfortable and safe?

Also important

Whenever purchasing a bike, there are some personal questions that you should be asking yourself (and answering very honestly).

  • When did I last ride a bike?
  • How frequently do I ride?
  • What kind of biking experience do I have? (What kinds of terrain did I have to handle? What is my handling skill set?)
  • Do I have any health conditions or physical limitations that could affect my ability to safely manage a cargo bike?
  • Do I want to consider an electric assist bike

Types of cargo bikes

A cargo bike is a cargo bike, right? Not necessarily. While all cargo bikes serve the primary purpose of carrying larger loads than other bikes would generally allow, there are different kinds of cargo bikes within this specific genre of bike, each fulfilling different needs. Regardless of what style best suits you, keep in mind that transitioning from a standard sized bike to a cargo bike takes some getting used to. A cargo bike is longer than any bike you’ve ridden in the past and will feel, handle, and stop differently. Be sure to practice basic riding and maneuvering procedures before hitting the road so there aren’t handling surprises.

Longtail

Longtails tend to feel more graceful than other cargo bikes, perhaps due to being somewhat small in size and more lightweight. To have an idea of its size, simply extend the back end of a regular bike (which can be estimated to be around 68 inches) by 12 to 16 inches. The extra length might not seem significant, but there’s no denying the feeling that you’re riding an exceptionally long standard bike.

Because the smaller size of longtails makes them easier to manage, you can also expect to carry a bit less cargo. (Don’t worry — most find that there’s still plenty of storage). Loads are hauled on sturdy extended racks located in the back of the bike, but a basket can also be attached to the front for additional carrying capacity. Seats can be added to the back to carry passengers of all ages. The majority of longtails can seat up to three children, but some can only fit two.

In addition to being easier to manage than other cargo bikes, longtails are more affordable, making them especially attractive to those who are on a budget. The fact that they’re available in different wheel size configurations could also be a gamechanger, depending on your needs. It’s worth noting that longtails can be difficult to transport and store, so be sure to take those two factors into account before purchasing.

rad power radwagon 4Rad Power Bikes Radwagon 4

Midtail

A midtail bike is a viable option for those who would like features of a longtail, but in a shortened length. The wheelbase of a midtail cargo bike is shortest in its class. In fact, some midtails are so compact that they’re almost the same size as a standard bike, but with the ability to haul heavy loads.

Often compared to the classic story of Goldilocks’ search for the porridge that is “just right,” the midtail falls into that "just right" sweet spot; it’s not too short or too long - it’s just right. Its smaller size means it handles more like a traditional bike, can be easily transported on a hitch rack or in a car, and has more parking and storage options than its fuller-sized counterparts.

riese mueller multichargerRiese & Müller Multicharger

On the smaller side, midtails often have lower weight capacities and smaller cargo space, so expect to carry less cargo and only one child (two at most) than other options. In addition to a lower cargo carrying capacity, the shorter wheelbase with a higher weight can cause the load and your overall ride to feel unsteady and unsafe.

Long Johns (also known as Bakfiets or Box Bikes)

Especially popular among families in the Netherlands and other european countries and increasing in popularity in the US, Long Johns, also called bakfiets or box bikes in some countries, run on the larger side. Long Johns are sometimes nicknamed "front loaders" due to the position of the cargo box, which is located between the front axle and the rider with a specially designed frame and steering system that runs from the handlebars to the fork.

The layout and design of a Long John bike makes it ideal for the easy hauling of bulky cargo, pets, or even kids and all the kid essentials (including toys, blankets, lunches, and folding chairs)! The cargo box (or crate) rests lower to the ground and can promote a sense of stability. The box style allows for quick, easy packing (just throw everything into the box and go), allowing users to forgo the step of balancing your load. In the event of rain, it only takes seconds to throw on a raincover.

riese mueller packsterRiese & Müller Packster 70

As with any other bike, a Long John requires special considerations, such as whether there is ample storage space at home and safe, secure parking spaces at the locations you frequent most. A larger bike will also be harder to transport by car or public transportation. The cargo bike’s high carrying capacity also results in a heavier bike that can be especially difficult to pedal uphill — especially with kids, pets, or cargo in tow. Make sure your local bike shop is familiar with them, as they are not as common.

Long John tricycle

The Long John tricycle, or trike, is similar in design to the Long John bike, but boasts three wheels instead of two. The cargo box is commonly situated between the two front wheels and handling will depend on bike design. Some models are designed with the wheels connected to the box so the entire front half turns and maneuvers much like a wheelbarrow. Other designs feature wheels that are separate from the box, allowing the wheels to move independently from the box, making it possible to lean into turns, resulting in improved handling at higher speeds

Long John trikes offer the same advantages of greater cargo and passenger capacities, but they can also deliver increased stability, which is why it might be such a popular pick. People who want or need as much stability as possible, such as parents who have kids to transport or anyone with balance issues, would benefit from this kind of support.

Long John tricycleBunch The K9 - 2020 Edition

The same wheel that increases the rider’s overall stability can also make it feel less stable because it prohibits you from leaning into maneuvers. As a result, making turns and riding at high speeds should be approached carefully. The heavier weight of a cargo tricycle makes it a poor option for those who have to ride uphill and its overall size can make at-home storage a challenge.

Cycle trucks

Cycle trucks, also called “freight bicycles,” have become popular within the business sector. Cycle trucks are considered medium duty cargo bikes and are designed to feel as graceful and responsive as a sturdy traditional bike. They’re not much bigger than a standard bike, but unlike a standard bike, the front wheel is usually smaller than the back wheel. Cargo is usually affixed to a rack that sits above the front wheel.

UPS cycle trucksUPS Cycle Truck

Standard versus electric

Any bike that relies on power generated by the rider’s pedalling and no other power source is a standard cargo bike. Electric bikes, or e-bikes, offer an additional boost of power via battery, typically generated by the cyclist’s pedalling. The benefits of an electric bike are vast, but needless to say, anyone can benefit from an e-bike.

An electric bike can help overcome certain health or physical limitations, ultimately opening more riding opportunities to people who otherwise felt bicycle-riding was inaccessible to them. The added power boost can help reduce injury that might result from overexertion or from years of not riding, as well as make difficult-to-ride hills a breeze. Electric assistance can also help bridge the gap between two riders whose riding abilities are opposite ends of the spectrum by allowing the e-bike rider to maintain same speeds and cover the same distances as the standard bike rider. Even if you plan on riding solo, opting for an e-bike will allow you to ride greater distances in a shorter period of time.

The size and the weight of a loaded cargo bike make electric assist something worth considering — especially if you live in a hilly area or expect to travel long distances. To compensate for the added weight, cargo bikes are geared lower than regular bikes. Lower gears trade speed for torque, which is needed to get a large bike moving. With electric assist, a fully loaded cargo bike can be as easy to pedal as a normal commuter without any sacrifice in speed.

couple on a cargo bikeRad Power Bikes Radrunner

Some other cargo bike options

In order to most benefit from a cargo bike, it must meet the needs of the owner. Lack of financial resources or sufficient storage space are common reasons why people feel they can’t invest in a cargo bike. Instead of feeling defeated, consider looking into some alternative options.

A new cargo bike, complete with gear and accessories, can quickly become expensive. It doesn’t happen often, but every now and then, your local bike shop might have a previously loved cargo bike on their floor. Online community sale forums and social media markets can also be a useful tool in searching for a used bike. If you opt for a used bike, don’t be afraid to carefully inspect it for issues. If your bicycle knowledge is limited, bring it to a bike mechanic for inspection before purchase.

Second hand cargo bikes are hard to come by, so the search might leave you empty-handed. Another budget-friendly cargo bike option requires just a little bit of work on your end, but can prove to be very rewarding: a DIY cargo bike. There are DIY kits that convert a standard bike into a cargo bike in minutes and cost significantly less than a cargo bike. The costs of conversion kits range from about $400 to as much as $1200, depending on the manufacturer and selected bike features. Not sure how to assemble a kit? Call your local bike shop to see if they can help.

The irony of having a cargo bike is that while it allows you to avoid traffic, navigate routes that are inaccessible to cars, and park in smaller spaces, it also requires the owner to have a large space in which it can be stowed. If you live in a studio apartment in the city or in a house with a jam-packed garage, there may be nowhere to keep a cargo bike when it’s not in use. If space is an issue, perhaps a foldable cargo bike might be the right choice. The beauty of these bikes is that they can still haul big while folding into a small size for easy transport and storage.

Accessories and gear

When adopting a cargo bike lifestyle, it’s imperative that you consider the accessories you’ll need. After all, if you want to reap the full benefits of your cargo bike, you need to be properly equipped. This includes cargo carrying accessories and safety gear.

While some cargo bikes come equipped with lights and fenders, others might not. Before you order a particular bike, consider its standard equipment and make sure optional accessories you’re looking for are available for that particular model.

Transporting Cargo

Depending on your bike of choice, there are a variety of options available for toting around whatever is required. Pannier bags, racks, baskets, and boxes or crates (available with or without organizers) are all common methods of transporting cargo. Determining which is right for you will depend heavily on your preferences, whether or not storage space will need to be relinquished for passengers, and the overall size and weight of the bulkiest of loads that will need to be carried. For example, it’s unlikely that a week's worth of groceries will fit into a small front basket, but a box could offer all the space needed and more. If temperature sensitive items are on the cargo list, it might be worth looking into carrying options that will help maintain temperature requirements, such as insulated boxes or packs.

One of the most obvious differences you’ll notice when switching to bike-based transportation is that of loading up your stuff. Throwing a bunch of heavy objects into the trunk of your car will not noticeably affect it’s handling, but the same cannot be said for bikes. A poorly loaded bike has the potential to offset the bike’s balance and could result in a crash, so it’s absolutely imperative that you master the skill of loading up cargo in a way that maintains balance.

Securing a load on your bike requires both planning and practice. The bottom bracket, the axis around which the pedals spin, is most often going to be the center of mass of the bike. The closer a load is to the center of mass, the lesser its effect is going to be on stability and maneuverability of a bike. A heavy object secured in the trunk behind the seat will affect your ride a lot less than if it was placed in a front basket by the handlebars. If your bike is equipped with pannier bags, make sure to distribute your cargo equally between them. Finally, secure loose objects with tie-down straps to make sure it doesn’t shift in transport.

cargo bike transporting cargo

If strategically packing your bike sounds like too much work, a simple cargo box without organizers might best suit your dump-and-go needs instead. If you opt for the simple cargo box, be sure that your items are secure and cannot move around freely to reduce the likelihood of unexpected weight imbalances. Shifting cargo can be distracting or even interfere with your control of the bike, which can result in a crash.

Transporting people and pets

One of the most advantageous features of cargo bikes is that passengers can come for a ride, too! Most cargo bikes can safely carry one to three passengers of all ages, depending on the bike and carrying setup. With the right equipment, it’s also possible to bring furry, feathered, and scaled friends for a ride, too. Remember - the only way to transport your loved ones is the right way. It’s important that you take safety measures to ensure everyone on board is protected and secure.

Cargo bike seats and trailers for passengers are available to accommodate all ages and sizes. Some companies even have seats and related accessories to match the cargo bike itself. Adult seats are highly recommended if you plan on traveling with an adult passenger. It’s worth noting that while most cargo bikes can only accommodate one adult passenger, most cargo bikes can transport multiple children. Children’s seats often come with safety features, such as seat belts or straps and handrails to help protect the child from climbing or slipping out of their seat. Because accidents can happen, passengers of all ages should wear a helmet to reduce the risk of serious head injury - even if not legally required. These safety measures should be taken every time you ride out - even for “short” distances.

Pets can be transported in a bike trailer, cargo crate or box, or carrier, much like you would travel with children. Ensure your pet is properly secured with safety straps, harnesses, or whichever safety accessories you’ve opted for. Pets should not be able to shift much because their movement could throw off your overall balance.

cargo bike with kids

Being safe

There’s nothing more important than safety, so before heading out on your cargo bike, be sure that both you and your bicycle are properly protected. When it comes to safety, one can never be too prepared.

When budgeting for a new bike, always consider the cost of basic safety accessories and gear. This includes a helmet, lights and reflectors, and safety vest or other brightly colored apparel. You’ll find that some higher end e-bikes come with integrated lights to increase road safety. Adding a bell isn’t absolutely necessary, but highly recommended, as it enhances communication between you and others with whom you share the road.

Perhaps one of the most important safety measures that can be taken is to practice riding your new cargo bike. Even the smallest cargo bike weighs more than a standard bike and will prove to be more difficult to manage. If you’ve never ridden a cargo bike before, it’s unlikely that you know how to handle it - especially when it’s loaded up to maximum capacity. Practice riding without cargo first, adding heavier, bulkier cargo as you gain confidence. Pay particular attention to the distance it takes for a bike to come to a complete stop and how executing emergency maneuvers, such as a quick dodge or emergency weaving, feels.

Be sure to apply the same safety measures to any passengers riding with you. Before allowing anyone to accompany you, learn safety maneuvering techniques for carrying passengers. Because people are capable of making their own decisions, it’s important that they know the rules of being a safe passenger.

Also consider

Technology allows us to connect with people all across the globe. While the convenience of technology opens our world to the worlds of others, it’s imperative that we remember that not everyone is an expert, regardless of their claims. Be mindful when seeking information and advice from bike forums, as the experience most have with cargo bikes is exceptionally limited to only a handful of bikes, even though there are hundreds of cargo bikes available for purchase. Also keep in mind that not all bike brands are created equal. Make sure you wind up with a bike that is known to be durable and that generally has a long lifespan. Also be aware of warranty policies and whether or not the company is easy to work with when handling issues.

Bicycle insurance

Whatever your reasons are for purchasing a cargo bike, it’s critical that you feel confident and protected at all times. Taking the time needed to learn how the bike handles turns and stops, become accustomed to the larger bike size, and have an overall better feel for how the bike rides are some ways you can plan to be safe in the saddle - especially when sharing the road with others. Wearing the appropriate gear is another way to protect yourself. Unfortunately, no one can anticipate an inconveniently placed debris in the road that causes a crash or other unforeseeable obstacles that could interfere with the day’s agenda. Bicycle insurance is one way to help plan for the unexpected.

Velosurance, a bicycle insurance company created by cyclists, offers multirisk, standalone policies that are highly customizable to meet the varying needs of those who have chosen to make the bike a part of their regular lifestyle. If being stranded with a flat tire is a concern, opting for emergency roadside assistance might bring you some peace of mind during your ride. Options range from theft coverage and crash or accidental damage to medical gap coverage and liability protection.

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